If you thought your friends were impressed by the fact that you got into Harvard with its 6.2% acceptance rate in 2011, it's time to think again. As more and more students worldwide seek tertiary education, some students are fighting against even more incredible odds worldwide to attend their top schools—and in some cases, Harvard's admissions rate looks positively gigantic. This year, some 485,000 students competed for just 10,000 spots at India's prestigious Institutes of Technology (IITs). For the mathematically challenged among us, 10,000 divided by 485,262 yields an admissions rate of just 2%.And the number of applicants keeps growing, having increased by some 30,000 since 2010. Competition has become so fierce that some reports suggest that 95% of successful applicants went through exam-coaching, with some taking anywhere from 2 to 4 years off of school to prepare. And with coaching costing anywhere from $800 to $3000 in a country where the average yearly income is just $3400, concerns about what IIT's extreme selectivity means for the poor are common.
For students from India at Harvard, the pressures of getting into an Indian higher education institution were often daunting. Namrata Narain '15 had thought of applying to American universities as a "second option" and spent the last two years of High School preparing for the IIT exam—only to find out she got into Harvard two days before taking the exam. Despite Narain’s clear academic qualifications, she guesses that even she would not have been admitted to India's prestigious Delhi University, where admission is determined solely by exam result.
Ultimately, it may come down to a simple problem of supply and demand. Shambhavi Singh '12 noted that there are just "not enough colleges in India that are considered top-tier and prestigious" to keep up with India’s booming population. Rishav Mukherji '15 agrees, noting that the strict entrance-exam based system is a large cause of brain drain as Indian students search for opportunities overseas.
For Mukherji, actually beginning to study for the exams made him realize that they weren’t for him, even though he had "always dreamed of the IITs." When he found out he would have to quit all his extracurricular activities just to prepare, he decided not to apply to a single Indian university. Anchal Lochan '13 concurs, noting that in contrast to the Indian exam system, the American educational system allowed her to "actually sit and think."